Thursday, October 18, 2012

Can McConaughey Strip Away His Old Persona with an Acting Nomination?

Matthew McConaughey
Once in awhile, there are those few performances that get buzz. Nobody knows why, but it only gives people more incentive to give it a peek. Of all movies to get this treatment from the past year, nobody would have suspected director Steven Soderbergh's stripper drama Magic Mike to make the cut. It became a runaway summer hit that has since entered the zeitgest through numerous parodies (most notably on a Joseph Gordon-Levitt hosted Saturday Night Live episode) and has made some consider the actors to be more than just pretty faces. The one to receive this praise the most is Matthew McConaughey, which seems odd when you consider his reputation as a shirtless Lothario. Does his performance as a wise-cracking stripper stand what it takes to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination?

Say what you will about McConaughey's catalog, but he is making quite the comeback. Starting with The Lincoln Lawyer last year, he has garnered new found praise for keeping his shirt on and getting a little serious. In fact, he outdid himself this year with Magic Mike as well as Killer Joe and Bernie. He is also set to star in Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels' follow-up to Precious titled The Paperboy as well as Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese's next film The Wolf of Wall Street. Pretty impressive for a man who only three years ago starred in Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past. It may take him awhile to drop the reputation from a decade's worth of drivel, but he is on his way.

Which makes Magic Mike all the more interesting. Critics have been championing McConaughey's performance as Dallas, a wise old stripper who can still get the ladies going. In a way, the film is not only about the economic short gain of stripping, but also about the frailty of masculinity. We seen the rookie (Alex Pettyfer), the professional (Channing Tatum), and the elder statesman, which could symbolize the stages of life culminating into the form of stripping. Still, what does McConaughey bring to this that makes it worth considering?

Right off the bat, he is playing a familiar role. He begins the movie with his pectorals blazing on a stage telling women in the crowd to get rowdy. There is a confidence to him that years of co-starring with Kate Hudson has lead to undermine. We don't see too much of McConaughey stripping, but what we do see is the sad reality of stripping and that some people never outgrow it. In a way, Magic Mike is a culmination of McConaughey's old image, and in a deeper sense a very meta approach to him expressing that he is tired of being the sex symbol at 43. Since Killer Joe came out months afterwards, this may be the definitive "McConaughey with his shirt off" role because it analyzes every other "McConaughey with his shirt off" role, which only makes it far more intriguing.

I really doubt that Magic Mike will play that well at this year's ceremony. As stated in my entry on Spring Breakers, the Academy tends to be older voters who don't care for overly sexual stories. This is about as testosterone as things can get, at least on the surface. As established, there are numerous subtexts including relationships and economic gain that makes it human enough to not just be exploitative. If the voters can get past the stripping, which may reveal secret homophobia, they will see that there is substance. However, not enough to call this a Best Picture nominee, especially when The Master, Argo, and Silver Linings Playbook are making the slots slim pickings.

Left to right: Channing Tatum and McConaughey
Of course, even Tatum shows some promise here, even though his role doesn't feel like an essential nomination. He is still young enough that he will continue to find appealing roles and may one day get a nomination. Of course, if there was a dance award, it would be a crime not to even consider him. The same could be said about McConaughey, but he is such an old pro that he makes it seem effortless. Add in his drive to turn stripping into a business, and you get his best shot at an Oscar nomination in the past five years. His other efforts haven't gotten nearly as much traction as this one, though it can be easy to see why.

It can also be seen as standing a chance because it is a Steven Soderbergh movie. While he hasn't been nominated since 2001 when he won Best Director for Traffic, he has since become one of the most respected indie director presences at the Oscars. His films can be perceived as having merit, and therefore are easier to at least be considered. While the subject of stripping is very taboo, the Soderbergh tag already serves as a Fast Pass. You can ask why Haywire earned no consideration for Gina Carano, but that was just a really good January film that just served as a fun action romp. Magic Mike is slightly more complex on an emotional level.

Of course, stripping isn't totally disregarded when it comes to Oscars. As stated in the Spring Breakers entry, Julianne Moore got Best Supporting Actress for playing a porn star in Boogie Nights and Marissa Tomei as a stripper in The Wrestler. Both of those movies involved plenty of nudity and sexual themes, but there were human characters at the center. In a way, this is McConaughey's most human role in the past few years.

The only question is if it stands a chance to get into the Top 5 spots. Oscars statistics website Gold Derby has his stats at 50:1 and also ranking in 8th place overall. That is pretty impressive, though does raise question to what needs to be done to put him up with top tiers like Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, Alan Arkin in Argo, and Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln. Since he is not established enough as a credible actor, he needs to work the comeback angle and hope it works out. By stating that he has gone back to serious acting, it will at least show some appeal of effort, thus creating some empathy.

Though I doubt overall that McConaughey will get nominated. It is a tight race this year, and at most, this should be a predecessor to any future nomination. That is of course if he plans to steer the course and strive for greater roles. However, it isn't that foolish to have at least considered his Magic Mike role, because it may the marker for the end of the young, beach comber persona, and the beginning of the serious, weird acting choices and respect persona. 

Do you think that McConaughey has what it takes to sneak into the category? Is it time that the Academy acknowledges strippers as credible dramatic roles? Is this only the beginning of a big comeback and an eventual nomination?

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